Monday, March 04, 2013

What happens after the great retail clear-out?

Not long ago Oxford Street had ten book shops. Now it has none - unless you count WH Smith.

Not long ago it also had half a dozen places you could buy records. It now has just one - and a sorry, understocked specimen it is at the moment.

Records and books are fast disappearing from our retail environment. You no longer encounter them on the way to get a sandwich. They enter most people's lives as noughts and ones or via the sturdy cardboard Amazon package.

I wonder whether they'll come back. Obviously not on the same level but maybe at a level enough to sustain some manufacture, distribution and retail, many notches below the mad over-supply of ten years ago.

We always cherish things just as they're about to slip away altogether. People had been gaily chucking away vinyl for years before they realised that this redundant, fragile format was about to be reborn as a soulful antique. When I did a programme for Radio Four about bootlegs a few years back there was reputedly only one record deck in the whole of the BBC. Now they're ordering them up like there's no tomorrow. Even CDs are now starting to feel just a little bit precious, which never happened before.

This is bound to be more the case as new CDs and books become less visible and more expensive, as they're surely bound to do as the number of retail outlets shrinks and Amazon, having taken control of the market, decides to push the price.

I was in Waterstone's in Piccadilly on Saturday, which is a pretty civilised place to buy books. I saw a book I was interested in. It was £9.99. I looked it up on the Amazon app on my phone. They had it for £6.89.

On two occasions recently I've walked out of independent book shops which didn't have what I asked for and hadn't heard of it either, stood on the pavement outside and ordered from Amazon from my phone. Both times I was thinking "I hope they're watching."

In Waterstone's I bought the copy in the shop. It's a nice environment, easy to navigate and the staff were pleasant. But more important than they, they had it. That's the clincher.

I don't expect to be able to find comprehensive book stores on every corner. A handful in the centre of London would probably do me fine. I would be perfectly happy with that.


  1. did the independents not have the ability to order for you? maybe even fom amazon! seems to be a little room for some margin on their part?

  2. "They had it" is the beginning and end of it, as far as I'm concerned.

    Every year I buy my brother a CD at Christmas; something I've liked and think that he will. In 2010 I wanted to give him the Janelle Monae one, and in 2011 the Metronomy one. Neither CD was a huge seller, but both were well-received critically and featuring well on end-of-year critics' lists.

    On both occasions I tried to buy the CD from HMV and, on both occasions, I was unsuccessful. (I live in a city which, at that time, had more than one HMV branch.) At that point I gave up, and started to wonder - if HMV can't sell me CDs like that, what is the point of its existence? I now have an answer of sorts.

    And roym: I can order it myself if I want to. The point of a bricks-and-mortar shop is that it will sell me what I want, on the spot.

  3. I buy (or rather used to buy) music on CD on a weekly basis. I don't have the wherewithal to make purchases online, so the past couple of months have been rather strange.

    New releases dribble, often belatedly, onto the shelves of HMV like back markers in a marathon; that's if they appear at all.

    The new I Am Kloot album finally materialised a couple of weeks after it's official release date. I was so overjoyed to have something new to play I took it home and listened to it over and over again.

    The ritual of going into a record shop on Monday and picking up any new releases that I might want is something so entrenched that I took it for granted. It came as quite a shock when the cloth suddenly got yanked off the table and most of the crockery and cutlery went with it.

  4. Hate to be nitpicky, but there is a bookshop on Oxford Street - a Waterstone's, opposite Selfridges.

  5. I fear that we're at a point, for at least a while, that certain types of shops won't exist. I would imagine that clothes shops are the next major area to feel threatened, if the vast numbers of Asos packages entering and leaving my workplace are anything to go by.

    As well as a physical shift, there's a mental one. People seem happier to rent than buy. You rent your music via Spotify or Lovefilm, and rent your music via Spotify or Deezer. I haven't made this leap. Maybe it's the collector in me.

    But aside from those who don't, won't or can't use online companies like Amazon or iTunes, there's another big problem with them as far as I can see, and that's discovery. Nothing online comes close to replicating the serendipity of just "discovering" something in a record or bookshop. If you know what you're looking for, online is fine. But if you want to browse? It's an appalling experience. Everywhere. You can't do it. And no amount of "people who bought this, also bought that" so-called recommendation currently comes close.

    The state of affairs in HMV's flagship store on Oxford Street really is terribly bad at the moment. There are gaping holes desperately being filled with front facing stock to make it look less empty. Downstairs they've just about given up the ghost. The classical section is nearly empty. I can only imagine they've not reached agreements with some suppliers despite what I've read saying that they have.

    However to be fair, there are still a couple of bookshops on Oxford Street - a Waterstones at the front of the Plaza, and another up opposite Selfridges!

  6. re backwards 7, I visited HMV Lincoln a couple of weeks ago to buy new I Am Kloot CD and any of their back catalogue, having seen them live in Manchester a couple of nights previously.........of course, not a copy in stock of anything from their work............sadly, I was no longer surprised.

  7. Isn't the extra three quid worth it to keep these business' going?

  8. I think it probably is worth it in that case, because it was a bird in the hand. But I reserve the right to issue of a hollow laugh if the shop is out of stock and asks whether I would like them to order it.

  9. I think we're already seeing the shift in price. David highlighted the three quid Joni Mitchell CD a few weeks back but try and order a new release on Amazon and the cost is rocketing. Twelve quid isn't far off the norm and you can be sure that Amazon know this. Maybe we will all just rent music in the future or the big media companies will finally get a grip and start seducing us with hi-fidelity HDCDs for collectors only. I'm going to Tesco to ask if they'll order me that new Ron Sexsmith album for eight quid. Giant against giant.

  10. I try to support the record shops by going to Rough Trade East on a lunchtime, but as often not a combination of their weird genre-based filing system (is it in Americana? US/Canadian? Folk? and so on), and pricing (£15.99 for the new Beth Orton album, really?) means I often leave empty-handed.